Gloom, doom, and apocalyptic musings seem to be a permanent feature of modern society. But we’ve had more in the way of dystopian movies and talk of imperial decline in the last ten years than in the preceding ten.
Quite a few readers have taken to mentioning Joseph Tainter’s classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies, in comments, a sign it might be worth discussing formally.
Tainter, an archeologist, developed his thesis out of his considerable dissatisfaction with prevailing collapse theories, which he duly enumerates and shreds.
His argument is straightforward:
1. Human societies are problem solving organizations
2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance
3. Increasing complexity carries with it increased cost per capita
3. Investment in sociopolitical complexity often reaches a point of declining marginal returns
This section gives a good overview:
There are two general factors that combine to make a society vulnerable to collapse when investment in complexity begins to yield a declining marginal return. First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occurring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed an operating regulatory apparatus this is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity, it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as climactic changes and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses, the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.
Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing even more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.
Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity a less attractive problem-solving strategy. When marginal returns decline, the advantages to complexity become ultimately no greater (for society as a whole) than those for less costly social forms. The marginal cost of evolution to a higher level of complexity, or of remaining at the present level, is high compared to the alternative of disintegration.
Under such conditions, the option to decompose (that is, to sever the ties that link localized groups to a regional entity) become attractive to certain components of a complex society. As marginal returns deteriorate, tax rates rise with less and less return to the local level. Irrigation systems go untended, bridges and roads are not kept up, and the frontier is not adequately defended. Many of the social units that comprise a complex society perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than long-term goals of the hierarchy. Behavioral interdependence gives way to behavioral independence, requiring the hierarchy to allocating still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimation and/or control.
As much as this argument is very persuasive, Tainter rejects explanations that rely on cultural factors (he takes the anthropologist’s view that preferring more complex societies for their cultural achievements is a form of chauvinism and has no place in good social science). But some cultures promote cooperation and lower legitimatization costs. Look at how Japan has endured a reversal of fortunes with far more grace than America would take a similar period of stagnation.
Similarly, if you look at America, the neoclassical economists started promoting their vision of society as composed of individuals operating in markets and government as inherently suspect, back in the 1950s, in a period of rising prosperity when no signs of incipient collapse were evident. So how do organizations and ideologies that undermine some of the key elements of a complex society (effective regulation, for instance) in a period of abundance fit into this picture?
More generally, what do you see as the strengths and limitations of Tainter’s theory?